Israel Refuses to Enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 1:19-45)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

In the wilderness, the people's fear leads to a failure to trust God. As a result they rebel against God’s plan for them to enter the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deut. 1:7-8). God had brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, given the law at Mt. Horeb (Sinai), and brought the people swiftly to the borders of the promised land (Deut. 1:19-20). According to the book of Numbers, God asks Moses to send out spies to survey the land he is giving to the Israelites, and Moses obeys (Numbers 13:1-3). But other Israelites use this reconnaissance mission as a chance to disobey God. They ask Moses to send out spies so they can stall the military action that God commanded. When the spies return with a favorable report, the Israelites still refuse to go (Deuteronomy 1:26). "The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven," they tell Moses, adding that "our hearts melt" (Deut. 1:28). Even though Moses assures the people that God will fight for them just as he did in Egypt, they do not trust God to fulfill his promises (Deut. 1:29-33). Fear leads to disobedience which leads to severe punishment.

Because of this disobedience, the Israelites living at the time are barred from entering the promised land. "Not one of these - not one of this evil generation - shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors" (Deut. 1:35). The only exceptions are Caleb and Joshua, the only members of the scouting expedition who encouraged the Israelites to obey God's command (Numbers 13:30). Moses himself is barred from entering the land due to a different act of disobedience. In Numbers 20:2-12 Moses pleads to God for a water source, and God tells Moses to command a rock to become a spring. Instead Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff. Had Moses spoken to the rock, as God commanded, the resulting miracle might have satisfied both the Israelite's physical thirst as well as their need to believe that God was taking care of them. Instead, when Moses strikes the rock as if to break it open, the opportune moment passes. Like the Israelites in Deuteronomy 1:19-45, Moses is punished for his lack of faith which underlines his disobedience. "Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites," says God, "therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them" (Numbers 20:12).

When the Israelites realize that they have condemned themselves to a lifetime of eking out an existence in the desert instead of enjoying the "good land" (Deuteronomy 1:25) God had prepared for them, they make their own plans to attack the Amorites. But God declares, "Do not go up and do not fight, for I am not in the midst of you; otherwise you will be defeated by your enemies" (Deut. 1:42). A lack of trust in God's promises leads Israel to miss the blessings he had in store for them.

When we know what is right, but are tempted to violate it, trust in God is all we have to keep us in God’s ways. This is not a matter of moral fiber. If even Moses failed to trust God completely, can we really imagine that we will succeed? Instead, it is a matter of God’s grace. We can pray for God’s Spirit to strengthen us when we stand for what is right, and we can ask for God’s forgiveness when we fall. Like Moses and the people of Israel, failure to trust God can have serious consequences in life, but our failure is ultimately redeemed by God’s grace. (For more on this episode, see “When Leadership Leads to Unpopularity” in Numbers 13 and 14 above.)

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